The Immune System: Nothing to Sneeze At

The human body is an incredible, complex workhorse that receives very little consideration until pain, sickness or disease manifests itself to bring our attention to the fact that something is not functioning correctly. Only then do we stop to wonder what is happening, what needs to be done to stop the problem, and what we could have done to prevent it.

Bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites are a fact of life. They are not to be feared as long as they stay in check. It is when an unbalance occurs that humans are affected in a negative way. In actuality, without microbes, life would not be possible. They break down dead organisms, help digest food, aid in the process of making bread, cheese, beer and wine, and protect us from disease.

However, we are under constant attack from microorganisms (more often termed “germs”) that seek a host—the human body—where they can survive and replicate. These foreign substances are trying to find their way into our bodies to rage battles and to bring us down. In doing so, they make us sick. But we are not left defenseless to this barrage.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states, “Every year in the United States, on average, 5% to 20% of the population gets the flu; more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu-related complications; and about 36,000 people die from flu-related causes.” Grim sounding statistics, yet they shouldn’t leave us fearful to enter a public area.

According to Drs. Ronald Klatz and Robert Goldman in their book Infection Protection, “It is not the microbes—or germs—themselves that cause infection, but rather the failure of our immune system to keep the relationship between body and microbe in balance.” So even with the ongoing threat of the annual cold and flu season, we can actively pursue a lifestyle that reduces the odds of being affected negatively by cold and flu germs, and build a strong defense against chronic diseases. We are only as healthy as our immune system is strong.

What exactly is the immune system? Our skin, nose, eyes, saliva and even stomach acids are the body’s first line of defense that work to keep foreign invaders from making us sick. We sneeze, cough, and produce tears in order to fight off infection. However, when those invaders do make us sick, our internal immune response—a network of cells, organs and tissues (lymph nodes, thymus, spleen, lymphatic vessels, and lymphocytes to name a few)—is triggered to attack and destroy those microbes that intend to do us harm. This can only happen if our immune system is healthy.

The key to a healthy immune system lies in making wise choices. It’s easy to grab fast food day after day, to “burn the candle at both ends,” to spend countless hours in front of the TV, or to “bring the office home” each night. But the end result will be a compromised immune system that cannot come to our rescue when a germ takes hold. The antidote is to practice good health habits: get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage stress and eat nutritious food.

How important is sleep to the immune system? According to a study from Carnegie Mellon University, researchers concluded that people sleeping seven hours a night or less and those whose sleep is often disrupted are three times more likely to develop a cold than those sleeping eight hours or more. Things to remember to encourage sleep: 1) turn off the television and computer an hour before bed, 2) sleep in a cool room, 3) don’t conduct office work in bed, and 4) avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evening.

Physical exercise is as important as sleep. Research shows that regular, moderate exercise will boost the immune system: walking for 30 minutes a day, five days a week increases the level of leukocytes, a part of the immune system that fights infections. On the other hand, a sedentary lifestyle leads to increased infections and colds. Moderation is important, however, as overdoing it with excessive exercise suppresses the immune system.

Who doesn’t have stress at one time or another? Stress hormones enable the “flight or fight” reaction, which helps to keep us on our toes. However, constant, chronic stress can weaken the immune system and lead to infections by increasing the levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, both of which suppress the immune system. So it is important to “unplug” from stress often. Recreation and leisure activities such as visiting a park or botanical gardens, playing relaxing music, taking up a hobby, caring for a pet and even watching a funny movie reduce stress hormones that lead to illness.

Good nutrition is a fourth key to a healthy immune system. Unfortunately, according to the CDC, 65 percent of U.S. adults are considered overweight or obese. And it is ironic that in a society that is overfed, micronutrient starvation is prevalent. Lack of critical nutrients in our diets is a major factor in the decline of our collective immune systems. The immune system cannot function at its optimal level if vital vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals are not present. According to data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) on fruit and vegetable consumption, only 11 percent of Americans met the USDA’s recommendation on eating “5 A Day.” Unfortunately, the typical Western diet consist of sugary, high-fat, salt-laden highly processed foods and fast foods that fill us up but do not contribute to nutrition, and that suppresses the immune system. The goal is to consume a diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats to “feed” a healthy immune system.

It is inevitable that we will come in contact with germs. Our defense against flu, colds and infection depends on an efficient immune-system. Are we sabotaging our own health? A compromised, weakened system will leave us defenseless, but wise lifestyle choices will determine whether the immune system will be available to work for us.